Monday, July 15

A Perfect Plot In 6 Easy Steps

A Perfect Plot In 6 Easy Steps


Of course there's no such thing as the perfect plot, but there are certain things that every book with that I-couldn't-put-it-down-if-I-tried quality have in common. In his latest blog post, Dave Farland tells us about them: Dave Farland's Daily Kick in the Pants: Plots.

Plots that work


Here's what every book that is stuffed to the rafters with narrative drive (/dramatic tension) has:

1. Interesting characters


You've heard this before: All your main characters should want something and your protagonist should want something desperately.
For instance, in Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Story Goal was right in the title: Indie needed to find and return with the lost Ark.

2. Conflict


There must be something keeping the characters from achieving what they want.

Dave Farland writes:
"For example, here’s a story: I just went out and got the mail and hour ago.

"Does that sound like a story to you? Not really. There was no challenge for me. Now, if I had to get the mail, but in order to do it I had to dodge bullets, stick my hand in a mailbox full of rattlesnakes, and fight off an IRS agent in order to get back in my door, then perhaps I’d have a story.

"Or maybe not. Sometimes the try/fail cycles can be boring because they feel contrived. The author goes “over the top” as he or she struggles to entertain."
These conflicts are going to both be internal (for example, battling one's own fears) and external (battling Nazis who want the ark for themselves).

3. Setting


Setting has to do with both characterization and conflict. Think of how important the setting was to the opening sequence in Raiders. What is the thing most people remember from it? That's right, the big boulder rolling toward Indie as he tries to run away.

The setting is what it is because Indie is an archeologist and relic hunter. It lets us know this is an exciting and dangerous job and that our hero is used to betrayal.

4. Try/fail cycles


Dave Farland writes:
"The characters must struggle to overcome some obstacle on three or more occasions, and the tale must resolve in such a way so that the reader knows what happens."

5. Interesting try/fail cycles


Dave Farland writes:
"Now, you can’t just have try/fail cycles. Your goal is to have interesting try/fail cycles. Fascinating attempts. Thrilling ones. In other words, if you have a villain, the villain must try to thwart your hero in ways that deliver suspense, that keep us engaged. Similarly, your protagonist needs to deal with his problems in ways that are entertaining."

6. High stakes


Make sure your protagonist has something to lose, even if it's only his hopes and dreams.

For instance, at the beginning of the story the protagonist embarks on his adventure because he wants something. This could be the Story Goal, but often it isn't.

In the middle of the story our hero is still pursuing a goal--perhaps not the same one--but the stakes have increased. If he doesn't achieve his goal it will be bad, not just for himself, but also for his fellow adventurers.

By the end of the book the stakes have escalated to include the folks back home. Our hero's life, and the lives of all those he cares about, will be devastated if our champion fails.

Dave Farland writes:
"Let’s talk about the stakes for a moment. The major problem often broadens, so that it affects more and more people as the story goes on. For example, in a murder mystery, the victims begin to pile up over the course of a novel. But the problem can also deepen, having more deleterious consequences in the hero’s life. The detective in our story might find that he cannot sleep, cannot eat. He becomes obsessed with finding his killer, and it ruins his marriage and family life.

"In fact, most of the time, a good conflict will both broaden and deepen."
In closing I'd like to leave you with these words of encouragement:
"So at the end of a tale, I have to go back and examine the basic plot, and ask myself, how well did the author do. Guess what? It doesn’t have to be the best plot ever written. Many a fine movie or book might score only a five and still become a big hit."
That's the key, isn't it? Interesting characters (/characters with tangible goals) engaged in repeated, escalating, conflicts in a setting that helps fire the readers imagination.

Happy writing!

Photo credit: "Mixed Bags" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

4 comments:

  1. A nice and easy explanation of the Hero's Journey. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love the way you simplify the plot process (six steps) and then simplify it even further with your closing. "Interesting characters (/characters with tangible goals) engaged in repeated, escalating, conflicts in a setting that helps fire the readers imagination."

    This entire post goes into my Evernote writing file.

    Thanks.

    ReplyDelete

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